Skip to content
Angels, devils and Bigfoot
Angels, demons and Bigfoot.
Sounds like a Dan Brown novel set in the Pacific Northwest.
Or else it refers to the subjects of some of the year's best books on myth and legend. It's been a good year for lore, but then again, any year is. People never exhaust their desire to believe in worlds beyond their immediate experience. What Hamlet scolded Horatio about -- that "There are more things in Heaven and Earth . . . Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" -- is a conviction plenty share even when critics say intimations of the divine are just the result of the brain's wiring.
Even if it turns out to be just wiring, John Geiger doesn't care. The author of "The Third Man Factor" (Weinstein Books: 300 pp., $24.95), Geiger surveys stories of angelic visitations to polar explorers, soldiers on the battlefield and mountain climbers (the book's title refers to how climbers, struggling up a peak, often feel they've been joined by an invisible companion). Extreme physical stress precedes all these experiences, making Geiger wonder whether visions of angels aren't triggered by the brain's need for consolation in times of distress.
Is that such a bad thing? Wouldn't it be a blessing, Geiger asks, if we could flip an "angel switch" in our brains to help us? His book is a provocative, fair-minded treatment of possible explanations for the origins of angelic visitors -- whether heaven-sent or neural -- that lets the reader have the final say.
Matt Baglio is also concerned with angelic visitations -- the malevolent ones. In "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist" (Doubleday: 288 pp., $24.95), Baglio follows Father Gary Thomas, a 52-year-old Catholic priest from San Jose, as he trains in the rite of exorcism in Rome. It's an excellent narrative strategy -- following one person through his first impressions and experiences -- because it helps readers understand what contemporary exorcism is all about.
"When people hear the word 'exorcism,' many think of images made popular by Hollywood films," Baglio writes. "Instead, exorcisms can be rather mundane, almost like going to the dentist -- complete with a stint in the waiting room. . . ." The book also focuses on the cultural popularity of the occult -- it's not just about your wacky aunt playing with her tarot cards. Our culture is so saturated, Baglio warns, that many of us are leaving our spiritual doors wide open.
Bigfoot, like angels, is a never-ending source of fascination. Joshua Blu Buhs' "Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend" ( University of Chicago: 280 pp., $29) and Michael McLeod's "Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot" ( University of California: 224 pp., $24.95) consider the possibility that a hairy, humanoid creature has managed to elude searchers over the years. McLeod writes evocatively of a rich, wondrous ecological area known as "The Klamath Knot," while Buhs chronicles how Bigfoot is wrapped up in our culture's fantasies of "wildness." He even supplies Bigfooters with a response to skeptics:
"Science deals with many entities that have never been observed directly. No one has seen a black hole. No one has seen a boson. These things are known by their effects, by the traces that they leave: by bending light, by tracks left in particle detectors."
Hamlet couldn't have said it better.
Owchar is deputy book editor. He writes the monthly Siren's Call column at latimes.com/books.